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Online Interviews with Ruth Stone


J. F. Battaglia
from "A Conversation with Ruth Stone"

JB: You have written many short stories, some published in The New Yorker, in Commentary and elsewhere; what are some distinctions between poetry and fiction?

RS: Prose and stories are more objective. Poems are emotional opinion.

JB: How did that get to be?

RS: I think poems are closer to your mad reactions to life. Also to the self, the wounded. I think a lot of poetry comes out of wounds. I'm sure stories do too, but actually fiction for me is objective because I think that fiction automatically became for me the observed Other. Poetry, as your own emotional outcries, is more personal. Poetry comes more out of the self; fiction is the self observing.

JB: Might we compare fiction to photography?

RS: Photography is a little bit more frozen, catching one frame, a moment, which is significant because we fill in the other moments automatically, whereas fiction fills in the moments. Catching time, catching frames of time, is what all of it is, anyway.

JB: A natural prose writer is a storyteller, do you think?

RS: Well, I realize that I'm probably also a prose writer, because that's what I've been reading for over seventy years: You can see it in the poetry—that I'm a storyteller. And I see that I'm constantly collecting people as characters and seeing situations that are happening in an artform, or dialogue and so forth that just fascinates me. You know, I constantly see people that way. I see everything dramatically.

JB: What about formal poetry, and rhyme?

RS: Rhyme is automatic with me. I use a lot of internal rhyme. And I use assonance and I rhyme vowels and I rhyme consonants, and it's all in my ear. It's like my own music, I guess.

JB: I notice that in your first two books, there are poems that are almost sonnets, thirteen and fifteen-line poems, so I wonder—when you get so close to writng a sonnet, why don't you just change a line or two and make it a traditional sonnet.

RS: I don't want to. [pause] I've played around with villanelles a lot, but they're not villanelles in the strict sense at all.

JB: I notice you like three-line stanzas as well.

RS: I love form, and it's fun and challenging to work with form. It's a catalyst, it zips up your adrenalin. The unrhymed and the meaningful lines are not shaped, so that's more like meditation. I think that's the way it is. There are many ways to approach what's stored in one's brain.

JB: How much is stored in your brain?

RS: My entire life and everything that's happened to me, everything that in every possible way, visually, auditorially, any way—the same with you. Your entire life.

JB: That worm that we drag behind us? You used that figure in an interview with Robert Bradley [AWP Chronicle. Oct/Nov 1990].

RS: You're a worm, or your life is like a worm, because you eat through time, you move through time, and you're up front here, but everything trails behind you, like a worm. I always think that we are like worms. I wonder if we look like them. You know, from a certain perspective, we might. Maybe all of our past glows.

JB: That leads to another question about writers in general: whether or not writers use what they know or what they've read about as if they had the actual experience.

RS: I think both. I think you certainly use what you've read about, beacause that goes in too. Language. We think both ways, visually and with language—and we make leaps that in a way seem language-less, too. I think that you probably may know something better by having a physical experience with it, but a lot of what we know is vicarious and secondhand, visually and auditorially.

In one way way we know nothing, and in other ways we know what we know, which might be true or might not be true, or proven not true, but we accept it momentarily as what we know. Having tried and tested many things, your taste buds can go bad on you and give you another taste.

I don't think that we can say that we definitively know anything. But we don't stop to go through that. We accept on faith that this is the way it is.

JB: Do poets improve with age?

RS: There's no question of that, if your brain goes on and on as it should under normal conditions there's more in it, it gets more full of whatever, so it's bound to happen, it seems to me, if you are a writer, that your stuff will get more profound. Although young writers are more passionate. But the purity of their passion, you know— passion has influences. Often, what ruins the poet is passion.

JB: Speaking of youthful passion, Ezra Pound is reputed to have influenced the Modern poets when they were young, perhaps late-century poets as well. Yes?

RS: I don't think Pound did much for anybody, that's just my personal opinion. I think Pound was very clever. Oh, he's all right. He had a lot of interesting theories and so forth, but I think he was terribly dogmatic and very harmful to many people, including H. D.

JB: How was he harmful to H. D.?

RS: For one thing, he had known her when she was in the United States. Do you know that her father was an astronomer? He was on the faculty at Lehigh and the University of Pennsylvania. She and Pound were great friends—I have a little book of the things they did—back and forth.

I think he was harmful to her, almost shoving her in a direction that he was [going]. I think he played God with people. He must have had a powerful manner of doing it, scruffy thing. I take him with a big grain of salt.

I've read his Cantos. I've read fascinating, learned stuff on his Cantos. I really don't see a lot of it. I think he was a one-up-man. If he had been a criminal, he would have been a great criminal. I think he was a trickster.

I'm always angry about the way he treated Amy Lowell—"Amygisms" and so forth. He made horrible fun of her. She wrote a lot of lyrical poetry, delicate love songs. So she was a fat lesbian, who cares?

JB: She theorized free verse for the first time.

RS: Um-hum. Ezra Pound was nasty to a lot of people. That's just my opinion of him. I got sick of the adulation of the generation when I was at the Radcliffe Institute. It's almost always men who think Pound is hot stuff. I don't know any women who think he's great. What's that you've got there?

JB: [reads from Donald Hall's review of Second Hand Coat]

"When Ruth Stone was young few women published and fewer were noticed. Now young women poets proliferate to appropriate praise. In the meantime, we have neglected Ruth Stone... As she grows older, her poems turn devastating without abandoning the absolute resolution she learned back in the 50s. In Second Hand Coat... art mediates pain neither evaded nor paraded. Frequently she addresses a dead man loved and resented, as in 'Scars.' Reading her it becomes us whom she adresses, us whom she begs to believe. Such a poem in its extremity remains memorable, trembles forever at the shadowy clearing's edge."

RS: Donald Hall. That was in the Harvard Book Review, when the book came out.

JB: That's a good review, I think.

RS: It's brief but good. And also, you know—"She's OK."

JB: He doesn't rave.

RS: He doesn't rave. Uh-uh. He never has. I've always been treated that way. There must be something terribly wrong with me. It means I'm not good enough. They all treat me so strangely.

JB: Maybe it's their way of raving.

RS: They take each other so seriously, those men. We've neglected her. And now we give her this, and so forth. I know that women don't respond to me that way. They really think I'm good. They know, they understand my work. I remember men used to tell me, oh your work is wonderful; you don't write like a woman, you write like a man. Not true. I write like a woman. I never have written like a man. Why did they say I wrote like a man?

JB: How do men write?

RS: I just think it's a crazy thing to say. I don't know what it means. They want to put women down, yet they have to praise me, so they say I write like a man.

JB: So saying that you write like a man is praise because men write better than women do?

RS: Absolutely. They all believe that. All of 'em. Do you?

JB: No, but I'm not sure that's what it means.

RS: It does. It does mean that.

JB: And that a man's sensibility is better than a woman's?

RS: Yep. And that men write about really important things.

JB: Men can perceive truth and women can't?

RS: And women are trivial and hysterical and overblown and whatever, you know. Actually, this used to be said a lot when Walter [Stone] and I were at Harvard in the late 40s. That's what they thought.

JB: Do you think that men or women write better love poems?

RS: Offhand, most of the love poems that I've read over my life have probably been written by men, including Shakespeare and certainly John Donne. I think men write more romantic and compelling love poems than women do. Of the women's love poems I've read, most are about loss. Sharon [Olds] writes good sexual poems about love.

JB: What about love poems by women to women?

RS: Jan Freeman writes to women. Hyena is one long series of love poems to a woman, and I think it's tremendous, rhythmical and passionate and visual.

JB: What do you think poets will be doing in the 21st century?

RS: I suppose something on computers. Electronic devices have obviously entered the picture.

JB: Many poets compose on computers now because the revisions are so easy.

RS: Yeah. I do think that computers have caused a livelier approach. However, the core is still the brain. And the brain is the result of all the time that you have lived until this point. If those complexities and illuminations are not available in certain ways, and if the depth of illuminations and so-called understanding are not really there, it's going to interfere with the poem—a kind of lack. What I am trying to say is that the computer cannot make you a genius.

JB: Only a writing tool.

RS: It's a wonderful tool. You can take the language from other writers you admire and all kinds of things and throw them in there and mix them up and get possibilities—it certainly can help you manufacture a lot of new stuff. Which is as legitimate as anything else. However, I'm not sure that you don't also need the illumination of a distinctive mind in order to guide it.

JB: I'm wondering how you feel about poetry and academic work, that is, writing and teaching. Is there a conflict there? To make a living, writers teach, becoming resident critics of other writers' work; they instill artistic values while furthering their own careers.

RS: I think it's very, very difficult. I think that probably the only way to really remain a writer in the best sense of the word is not to go into teaching and certainly not to go into scholarship. Not to go into the academic thing. I've only been steadily teaching for these five years because other times I've taught at the most two years and had a lot of space in between. Financially it may have been difficult, but artistically it was probably the only way I could do it. But now, I don't think it's as hard. I think I can manage it—I do manage it—I sort of don't allow my teaching and my writing to overlap in my mind.

JB: What would you say to someone who has recently written a dissertation that is a collection of poetry and who is looking for a university position?

RS: It's dangerous. I didn't start messing around with universities until I was in my mid-forties. By then I was pretty set as to who I was. I don't know—maybe they can do it. Because for one thing, English departments are much more relaxed and accepting of the writer now than they were. They do demand scholarship. I don't think that scholarship needs to hurt you. I think what hurts is the competitive pressure to write criticism and to do scholarship without it being meaningful to you.

JB: Professors have told me of writing a particular article because there was an opportunity to add a few details to some arcane and dated subject.

RS: That's kind of exciting.

JB: They just fill in something that nobody has said before.

RS: But that's what that kind of scholarship is all about. Nor do I see anything wrong with any accumulation of insight or knowledge.

JB: What is undesirable about the competitiveness of scholarship?

RS: I have known a lot of members of English departments—especially male—who were writing madly in the library, hunting up notes and this and that and the other, in order to get tons of stuff published in order to build up a big reputation. Not from the love of critical illuminations or intuitions about what's been read, but simply for their own aggrandizement. And this is a competition in the [scholarship] market that would amount to no more than [competition] in the business place.

That kind of criticism is dry as dust, full of large words that you do not understand. I don't like criticism, I won't read criticism that is deliberately obscure—what's the point of it? Usually it's a lot of nonsense about something very simple in an obscure way, usually done by these guys who are wildly competing with each other to appear erudite and learned, when it's just garbage. It's a big business competition.

JB: There are career-minded female academics...

RS: I'm sure they're doing it now, but this was before women were onto the deal.

JB: And there is a book-buying audience for poetry in the universities. Many people say that poetry readers have become centered at the university.

RS: Only a small number of the students, because most of them are media watchers. It's interesting, though, how students come upon poetry. Poetry in the Schools made a bigger audience later on because it got children writing it, though writing poetry doesn't make you a reader, necessarily. Taking out rhyme and rhythm, especially rhyme, helped a lot, because the children could write it easily. That's one of the reasons they dropped rhyme. It made it very difficult for most people to write it, and then people's ears began to change, I think. You know, Asian poetry doesn't rhyme, although Italian poetry does. English is musical, but I don't know if it's naturally rhyming or not, the way Italian is.

I think rhyme and rhythm and non-rhyme and form and all these things should be a part of it. Also, all kinds of experimenting, although exclusively experimental work has been not that compelling to me. I don't mind looking at it, but not endlessly, because it crosses over into the visual. Concrete poetry's fine, I just don't get the big charge out of it, although shaped poems are sometimes quite wonderful.

JB: You mentioned Poetry in the Schools, then the mindful work that poets do. How might the experience of writing poetry help young people develop and grow as individuals?

RS: Having children be encouraged to write how they feel and how they respond to the world, that's a wonderful thing, and it's also giving them an idea that poetry is not all something that they are taught—this is a poem and this is what it means, et cetera—which was a dreadful way of teaching poetry—but that it's the right of every human being. Poetry, in many ways, is an expression of the psyche. Maybe it's the wounded [psyche] inside us, as well as the joyous. I remember little children in—maybe it was here in Middlebury, or down in Maryland—but I asked them to write about something that they miss. Well, several of them wrote about loss, the loss of grandparents, of friends, or animals, and so forth—you know, all kinds of painful loss—and they were little kindergarten ones. Wonderful things they wrote. Expressions of art in all forms, but especially language, is healing.

Oh, I think it's a very good thing. And the fewer rules the better. Allow the voice to come out without a critic hanging over it, without someone telling [you] what you ought to say, ought to do, so it is the voice of the mind. Being permitted to speak. When it is accepted as a gift, it makes one human being feel "Oh, I'm not alone, we've all suffered this, felt joy, all of these things." For children who get to speak this way, and write their poems, it's a beginning of a beautiful freedom which also helps them to be able to love other people and to be loved by them.

JB: Do you think that adults have un-learned this process of communicating feelings?

RS: Oh yes. Repression. Even though now you see many people use other people's artwork as a release, rock music for example.

JB: Are you referring to repression and release in the classic Freudian sense?

RS: I think Freud has got so many holes in him that he looks like a sieve.

Um-hum. Holy Freud. Well, Freud was all screwed up about women, for sure, because he looked at what was the effect of not only the Jewish traditional attitude toward women but the male attitude toward women in general, that the woman's place was in the home et cetera, and the woman was jealous naturally of the penis. Et cetera. You know, it might be better to have a small penis than a big penis. Women have small penises. They work quite well.

[laughter]

But you know, Freud had his hangups, and one of them was his mother. Actually, Freud screwed people up royally, I think.

JB: Aside from the cathartic effect, why do we need art and poetry?

RS: One of the reasons is that we need to live many lives. One life is not illuminating enough because we live it moment by moment in darkness because until something has happened we don't know anything about it. So we need the stories of the race.

We need the stories from artists, we need the poetry, we need the music, we need the artwork, everything. We need that in order to know what life is. And how to go on and make any kind of relationship with other people. We need it to have any kind of apprehension of what it is to be human. Otherwise we're always at the forefront, moment by moment, and we have only the fumbling ways of getting there, and we learn by our mistakes.

No wonder it takes an entire life to finally get a tiny bit of wisdom. Well, wisdom is available in the arts. That's where it is! Free. Almost free. We need everything we can get to have a little bit of wisdom about living.

JB: So you feel that anybody can tap into this wisdom by experiencing art and reading poetry?

RS: Well, I think it helps because you are what you see, you are what you eat, you are what you do, you are what you read, you are what you listen to—that is the sum total. We are eaters. We are swallowing and taking in everything including the air and the water. Everything is washing through us all the time. That's what we are. If we deny the learning of the artists we're denying a great deal.

JB: Do you think this denial takes place in the culture of the United States more so than other cultures?

RS: I don't know about other countries, but of course in this country, because the corporate world is making the decisions for everyone, and it's influencing the culture, and buying it up. Publishing houses are a marvelous example—being bought up by corporations that limit and say "Does it make money? Does it make money?" Well, you know, the making of money is not necessarily the illumination that is required for one to understand how to live. It may teach you how to live in the corporate world, and maybe that's the most important thing we have to learn now, I don't know, but it's, for me, an unacceptable kind of life. The corporate world, though they may find it exciting, competitive, athletic, even, I find to be sterile.

JB: With order comes sterility.

RS: Afraid so.

from Boulevard 12.1-2. Copyright 1996 by Opojaz, Inc. Online Source

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